The worst-kept secret in the Saints’ locker room is that the team’s running game, ranked sixth in the NFL, is not merely capable of providing balance for Brees’s aerial pyrotechnics. The unassuming threesome of versatile Pierre Thomas, explosive Darren Sproles and powerful Chris Ivory provides the Saints with another dangerous offensive threat.
“That,” tight end Jimmy Graham said, “is what makes this offense so special. We are well-rounded.”
The last time the Saints lost a playoff game — a 41-36 defeat last January at the Seattle Seahawks — Thomas and Ivory were sidelined with injuries and Sproles had yet to arrive. But the trio, who helped the Saints amass 167 rushing yards in the wild-card-round victory over the Detroit Lions, will play important roles in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff on the road against the San Francisco 49ers.
Moving the ball on the ground will be a challenge against San Francisco, which allows just 77.2 rushing yards per game, 15 yards fewer than the league’s second-best rushing defense, Baltimore.
But even with the loss of Mark Ingram, the 2011 first-round pick who recently was placed on injured reserve, the Saints have a deep stable of backs who play complementary roles. None of the three collected more than 603 yards and five touchdowns on the ground this season.
“We all have different types of skills,” said Thomas, who was second to Ingram with 110 carries during the regular season. “. . . We have to show the coaches that this ground game of ours is powerful.”
Thomas, signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Illinois in 2007, played a key role in the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season two years ago. After leading the team in rushing yards in 2009, Thomas scored two touchdowns and converted a crucial fourth-and-one play in overtime of the Saints’ NFC title game victory. In the Super Bowl, Thomas had a 16-yard touchdown on a screen pass against the Indianapolis Colts.
Thomas was on injured reserve when the Saints lost to the Seahawks in the playoffs. But in his first playoff game since the Super Bowl, Thomas rushed for 66 yards on just eight carries Saturday and added 55 receiving yards. He spent most of the night spinning by defenders and breaking tackles.
“I couldn’t believe he stayed up,” left guard Carl Nicks said of one run. “. . . We are a different team when that guy is healthy.”